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Reviewer: Mike Malinowski
Source: Walker Proscenium Gold turntable; Walker Reference phono preamp; Clearaudio Reference Wood cartridge; Magic Diamond cartridge; Goldfinger [on review]
Preamp: VTL 7.5 Reference
Amp: darTZeel NHB-108
Speakers: Wilson X-2 Alexandria
Cables: Transparent Opus, Silent Source, Omega Mikro Ebony speaker cables; Transparent XL w/MM interconnect to amp; Omega Mikro between phono pre and preamp
Stands: Michael Green racks, VPI phono stand, Zoethecus, Walker Prologue Amp Stand
Powerline conditioning: Furman Balanced Power, Walker Audio Velocitor S, PS Audio 300
Sundry accessories: Valid Points resonance control discs; ASC tube traps; Echo Buster absorbent and diffuser panels; Argent Room Lens; separate 90-amp sub panel feeding five dedicated cryo'd outlets; Loricraft Model 4 record cleaner
Room size: 22' x 17' x 8' (double sheetrock on 2"x 6" framing in basement)
Review component retail: $8,000 (various trade-in allowances apply and reduce the price to $3,600 against a working Clearaudio Insider or $4,400 for a non-working Insider. Other older Clearaudio cartridges are worth $2,000 to $3,200 in trade depending on vintage. Even a Benz cartridge nets $1,600 toward a Goldfinger.)

Rather than succumb to the musical forces of the new millennium (including digital, home theater and MP3s), a few of the vinyl visionaries have taken the industry transition not as the death knell of an industry but as a challenge. These companies could have easily rolled over, adjusted their business model and joined the digital revolution. Established players such as VPI, Walker, Benz, SME, Koetsu, new players like Continuum and dozens of others chose not only to maintain the vinyl status quo but to challenge it with exciting state of the art products. While facing what some pundits believe to be their imminent extinction, these visionary companies chose to meet the challenge head-on with boundary- pushing, state of the art products. One such visionary is Peter Suchy of Clearaudio, a company whose mission statement is: "Take the best, make it better - only then is it just good enough." For twenty-five years, Suchy has developed and manufactured an impressive and growing range of products: cartridges, turntables, phono preamps and vinyl accessories. His passion has been adopted by his sons, Robert and Patrick, each sharing the same ideal - "unlocking another dimension, an emotional odyssey and discovering an existence within the energy of music."

Today we focus on the cartridge flagship, the Goldfinger. The entire cartridge line -- Concerto, Stradivari, Titanium, Goldfinger -- proceeds not in incremental upgrades but totally new designs from the ground up - or more correctly, the diamond tip up. Clearaudio's previous Reference Series brought critical acclaim, albeit with a price tag that some found to be extreme. However, as an owner of the Insider Reference Wood, I would say that it elevated my system to new heights in soundstaging, transparency and transient response. It was and is, fast, detailed and exciting as opposed to lush, warm and romantic. It was arguably one of the best. Moving up the Clearaudio line, there is a definite house sound - alive, dynamic, clean, detailed and transparent. Each step up allows you to progressively peer deeper into the musical picture with ever increasing detail. Now, take the detailed strengths of the Insider Reference, extend them, combine them with the cohesive musicality and liquidity of a Magic Diamond (or even a Koetsu) and you have the musical foundation of the Goldfinger.
Some designers offer intimate details of the design process and manufacturing. However, the Clearaudio information provided by the importer, Garth Leerer of Musical Surrounding, was somewhat limited. This is not surprising. Over the years, Clearaudio seems to have kept technical details somewhat close to the vest. Still, what we have is interesting. As a totally new design, you will not mistake this cartridge for any other. The mounting flange is a petal or gear shape with multiple radii, which aid in resonance control. Its appearance is unique and distinctive as one might expect from a $7,000 cartridge. Clearaudio prides itself on their "symmetrical [design] in all aspects of electrical, mechanical and magnetic engineering." The gold coils are symmetrically balanced both front to back and side to side and attached directly to the cantilever with no traditional suspension, leading to better separation and transparency. The long boron cantilever with 24kt gold coils and the newly developed ultra low mass (.00016 grams) HD-diamond tip is housed in a high mass (16gram) gold housing, the design of which is claimed to reduce resonance and increase dynamics. Plus, "a radical new design of the magnetic circuit, achieved by doubling the magnets up to eight pieces and by using the most powerful magnet materials currently available."

The study of the cut walls of vinyl grooves led to the HD tip which is, theoretically, a best fit match of the tip to the groove. Even without access to their data, it makes logical sense that the better stylus fit will retrieve more musical detail. Where this gets really interesting is the published dynamic range of up to 100dB, with frequency response of 10Hz to 100kHz.

From Clearaudio's test data, "the peak level (blue graph) in relation to the record noise (green graph) clearly shows a dynamic range of 100dB." For all of you confirmed digiphiles, remember that the theoretical dynamic range of a CD is 96B, reduced to a practical range of 90dB. The dynamic headroom of the Goldfinger should, in theory, blow away CDs without nasty digital artifacts. The noteworthy specs are to the right.

As impressive as this is, our wonderful hobby is not about numbers but listening. If it doesn't sound good, who cares if the frequency response goes out to one megahertz? Fear not, the Goldfinger is a winner - big time.

Overview & setup
The packaging for the Goldfinger is identical to that used in previous Clearaudio high end cartridges, a mini locking chest with the cartridge encased in a plastic pyramid surrounded by foam - secure, elegant and cool. Even cooler is a body made from gold. It's for sonic reasons, I know - but it's nifty nonetheless.

The long cantilever extending forward in a sort of phallic protuberance frankly scares the daylights out of me. It sits there naked, just ready for me to do something stupid and klutzy. Fears notwithstanding, the setup is rather straightforward. The body unlike the Reference Wood is threaded to receive the mounting screw, requiring no nuts, which I invariably lose. The snap-on stylus guard protects the cartridge from clumsiness during installation.

The key to any cartridge installation is, of course, proper alignment. I use the Wally tractor system which I find unmatched in accuracy and precision. It is, however, intense and requires good eyesight. The Wally system is essentially an etched mirror with one continuous horizontal line and several vertical marks along the line. The mirror has a hole which attaches to the table's spindle. There are different versions of the Wally for different types of arms. The Walker of course is a linear tracker. The installation goal for linear arms is to mount the cartridge with overhang adjusted to allow the stylus to perfectly trace the etched line on the Wally mirror. Each adjustment in or out requires painstaking visual confirmation with the magnifying loop and then multiple refining adjustments of the cartridge. Every cartridge has a certain amount of play in its mounting flange. However, due to the design of Goldfinger, this adjustment range was not sufficient, requiring the tone arm to be physically loosened and moved backwards.

Once you've achieved tangency to all points along the line, you then align the azimuth. The stylus needs to be exactly perpendicular to the line of travel. The small vertical tick marks allow you (with the aid of the magnifying loops) to align the cartridge so the stylus is parallel to a vertical mark. You twist the cartridge while mounted until the stylus aligns. Of course you could mess up tangency, so you have to recheck it, but when you are done you have a perfectly installed cartridge. There is no written description which can adequately describe this Wally process. You have to do it a few times and it then becomes quite intuitive. The entire installation process took about two hours including Wally alignment. For my system, two to three hours is typical.

The Goldfinger is a massive 17 grams and is of course made from gold. This requires a reset of the Walker VTF (vertical tracking force) by adding an additional counter balance weight. I then roughed in the VTA (vertical tracking angle) by visually aligning the base of the cartridge with the bottom of a record. The Goldfinger was more difficult than most due to the uneven non-parallel cartridge bottom. Setup would have been easier with a flat parallel bottom - a minor quibble.